New technologies enhance Prepayment Metering Services

Great strides continue to be made in the measurement techniques of prepayment meters, providing utilities with richer engineering services such as power quality monitoring, consumption history, time of use and meter status information. The key to gaining the greatest return and efficiencies from this information is to implement two-way feedback between the meter and the management system.

This can be done as part of the purchase cycle, whereby data is transferred from an intelligent token device such as a smart card, Dallas button or electronic token key. When a new token is purchased, the feedback data is downloaded by the vending outlet. However, this method relies entirely on the customer’s purchasing cycle, which may be month to month, and thus provides no immediacy for utilities.

Two-way communication

To facilitate near real-time feedback and increased functionality, a two-way communications solution is required, such as power line communications (PLC), wireless RF, GSM or PSTN. This allows utilities to have a rich source of valuable metering data available on demand, such as voltage and current levels, records of time dependent consumption, access to token entry records and an early warning mechanism for fault detection, including tamper warning. Furthermore feed-forward of information to the meter adds other benefits, for example the ability to update the metering parameters for complex tariffs remotely, or for community messaging into the household.

Prepayment and AMR

The introduction of on-line automatic meter reading (AMR) takes communication a step further. Although not synonymous with prepayment, there are many benefits to combining both approaches into a modern solution.

The utility still enjoys upfront payment whilst being able to constantly interrogate the meter for valuable feedback information such as zero consumption, which alerts the utility to potential non-technical losses. This has the added benefit of improved resource utilisation, as personnel traditionally deployed in meter reading and periodic site inspection can be more efficiently directed to the locations requiring intervention.

As utilities strive to improve their revenue management model, the choice of metering technology often has long-term strategic implications.

Multi-utility metering

For this reason, utilities are increasingly interested in the development of multi-utility prepayment metering systems that allow water, electricity and gas to be managed on one platform. The consumer’s energy needs are controlled through a single interface, which is connected to multiple energy-specific metering control units.

In the case of multi-utility metering, vending solutions are being developed to allow for the sale of various prepayment tokens (gas, electricity and water) from one retail outlet. The utilities’ service offer is further extended to support features such as arrears collection, account payments, tariff rate distribution and fault logging.

The demand for more sophisticated meters creates a ripple effect, whereby the revenue management system – the nerve centre for successful prepayment solutions, as it records all consumer transactions –undergoes a process of continual improvement to meet the metering needs. Reports currently generated from the data-rich management system allow utilities to monitor items such as consumer purchase patterns, determine energy load requirements, reconcile to bulk metering devices, detect non-technical losses and plan the maintenance of their systems.

Advances in e-Business

Meanwhile, the advances in the e-business environment have resulted in an easy step to a full service utility model, whereby the vending system links directly into an established financial backbone. This provides consumers with a convenient way to purchase their energy needs via modern technology systems such as the Internet, interactive voice response (IVR) or simple messaging systems (SMS) on GSM cellular technologies. The consumer simply purchases the required amount of energy from a service provider, while the financial transaction credits the relevant utility and debits the consumer’s bank account. The customer then receives a token (SMS, voice or any other form of electronic media available in the industry) which is entered into the meter to activate service delivery.

This can be taken even further with token-less vending, whereby the transaction incorporates the token being transferred directly to the meter from the vending outlet, through the communications infrastructure. For example, consumers can phone through from the office and purchase their energy requirements, safe in the knowledge that when they arrive home, the meter will already have been credited and their electricity requirements met. This serves to satisfy the needs of more sophisticated consumers who are looking for ease of use and convenience, while utilities still reap the benefits of improved cash-flow through prepayment.

These developments allow the prepayment metering industry to meet the changing needs of utilities worldwide. More important, prepayment enables utilities to realise a sustainable revenue management solution whilst enhancing the service to consumers – a significant factor, especially in deregulated markets.